Aluwihare, British Council, Chanaka Amaratunga, Chitty Ratwatte, Dayanthi Tennekoon, Dhara Wijesinha, Ena de Silva, Ladies College, Maduru Oya, Nirmali Hettiarachchi, Sabaragamuwa University, Shirley Perera, Talaimannar, Wasgamuwa Park, Wild Life Department
Another memorable loaf, as Ena called these meanders, was in 1992, with Nirmali Hettiarachchi, who did a lot of work with me at the British Council, and who had also become a fast friend of Ena’s over the years. This trip also had a wild life component, for it included the Wasgamuwa Park which had not yet properly opened, and also Maduru Oya, which was off limits to the public.
Our key to enter was Shirley Perera, who had joined Ena the previous year when she set up her Carpentry Training Workshop. He had initially come for a few days, to help also with the Exhibition that was held at the British Council to reintroduce her work to Colombo, and then he stayed on for over a decade. He still goes back to help when she has any major assignment to which he can contribute, and continues a regular on her trips to the jungle.
He had been Deputy Head of the Wild Life Department, but had been passed over for the Headship when Premadasa became President, and appointed Dr Kotagama from the University of Peradeniya. The appointment met with great acclaim, including from Nihal Fernando, although he was a great friend of Shirley’s, and had indeed introduced him to Ena in the first place.
Kotagama however proved a disappointment, initially because he was not good at administration, and later because he fell ill and took a long time to recuperate. Unfortunately, by the time there was a vacancy again, Shirley had taken early retirement, and then began the long decline of the Department, with no proper planning and attention to detail. But this was Ena’s gain, for he proved a great asset at Alu, and also for explorations such as our incursion into the Parks east of the central hills before they were open to the public.
In Maduru Oya we stayed with the Park Warden, Mr Jayasinghe, who showed us some of the old irrigation works, which were fascinating. He also had a tame mongoose which was a delightful companion, though with painfully sharp teeth if one became too familiar. In Wasgamuwa we had to camp in the open, sleeping under the stars, with some worry in case elephants decided to investigate during the night. We had a campfire, which was supposed to stay alight till dawn, but that did not happen though fortunately we had no intruders, albeit there had been noises in the distance before we slept. Bathing was in the river, which flowed shallow but strong alongside, while the decrepit toilet without a door that was all that was available was some distance away from where we stayed.
It was in Wasgamuwa that we heard about the bomb at Flower Road, targeting I think some Defence Ministry office. The impact extended to Ladies College, where a ceiling had collapsed, and while we were there we learnt that the daughter of Anila’s friend Chitty Ratwatte had been injured. She was a delightful child, who had been with us the Christmas before at Yala, when Raji had invited dozens of relations and friends. Her father was German, but had settled down in Sri Lanka on Anton Ratwatte’s estate near Matale, so they were the nearest cosmopolitan relations (albeit through Phyllis, whose husband had been Anton’s brother) to Ena and provided great support during family events which were given a miss by most of the Colombo crowd.
Chitty’s sister Yassie had worked for Ena in the sixties when she had run ‘Mariposa’ as an outlet for her creations in Colombo, and was a great friend (in that interconnected fashion I never ceased to find fascinating) of my cousin Dhara Wijesinha, along with Priyani’s sister Dayanthi Tennekoon. Dayanthi had married Lalith Athulathmudali’s brother Dayantha, and Yassie Ekendra Edirisinghe, my old hero at S. Thomas’ because he used to stand up firmly to Rev L G B Fernando, the Choirmaster whom I found a hard taskmaster (perhaps because I had no singing skills though I lasted three years in the Choir before that was found out).
The news was difficult to take and, though nothing worse was heard then, it gradually transpired that the blow she had received had affected her badly. She was taken abroad to be operated on, but nothing could be done, and she died shortly afterwards. The family was badly affected, and though the other two children recovered in time, and are great fun when they appear occasionally at Alu, in time Gunther and Chitty parted.
Sadly, though we kept talking about another expedition, I have not been able to go loafing again with Ena and Nirmali, who has been another great companion for work and fun and books over the years. She even agreed, despite not really being interested in politics, to be Treasurer of the Liberal Party for a while, when she knew we were in low straits after Chanaka Amaratunga died. But though I see her probably more than anyone else in Colombo on a social basis, and though we have continued to travel together on educational projects, those leisured days of Alu loafs are no longer possible given her increasing workload.
Ena and I did however continue to travel and to loaf. In 1993 I took on Kithsiri, as practically my permanent driver, though initially he was hired with a car from the most reliable travel agent the British Council had used. After nearly a decade he decided he wanted to buy his own vehicle, and got an old Fiat from a fellow don at Sabaragamuwa University. The vehicle seemed on its last legs, but Kithsiri restored it, and painted it a bright yellow, which he claimed was the original colour, and for half a decade then I used to hire it from him, his former boss kindly consenting to the arrangement.
Unfortunately Kithsiri, who was married by then, with one child and another born in 2004, could not make ends meet on the income he made from my hires, so I had to supplement this by lending him money. Since the only way he could pay me back was by being hired by me for more travel, I had to increase my journeying, and go on pleasure excursions, as well as the work related trips I had originally used him for.
Amongst these was a journey to Mannar, where Ena and Kithsiri and I spent the Christmas of 2003. Ena had been there previously, with Shanthi and Shirley, when travel there became possible and safe following the Ceasefire Agreement with the Tigers in 2002. They had stayed in a small guesthouse which proved perfectly comfortable, and provided adequate food, though we supplemented this with Anila’s pudding and Nirmali’s cake for our Christmas dinner.
We loafed of course, including a delightful trip to Madhu Church on Christmas Day. We had to pay a Tiger tax to enter what they claimed was their territory, which was irritating, but there was nothing to be done about that, and it proved fully worthwhile. There was hardly anyone there, and the tranquility of the place made me understand why it seemed so holy to so many, of different faiths. And we found too a similar atmosphere at the Thiruketheswaran Temple, though only Kithsiri and I could enter the precincts, bare-bodied and in vertis that we had to hire.
It was exciting too to drive to Talaimannar and look at the wreck of the pier, from which the ferry used to go to India until hostilities prevented it a couple of decades previously. Just before that my mother, I remembered, had traveled by train and ferry to India with a group of her Girl Guides, shortly before she had her first heart attack. That was an adventure I had never experienced, but remembering what she used to get up to, I realized that perhaps my excessive love of travel also had something hereditary about it.